In a trendy, industrial-looking building just 150 metres from the Bank Of England in London, hordes of weary office workers shuffle furtively through the front doors hoping not to bump into any of their colleagues. They’re there for one reason: to learn how to wave goodbye to their soulless jobs and start a new life. They’re here for Escape School, and they’ve paid £2,000 (about Dh9,000) for the privilege.
While it sounds like the opening scene for a movie, the school really exists, and the eye-popping fee is real, too.
As a result, everyone who has signed up for it is deadly serious about stepping off the corporate ladder and doing something different. And the support, guidance, and ‘tribe’ mentality offered by Escape School is designed to maximise their chances of pulling it off.
The brainchild of a small band of disgruntled City types who fled the corporate world several years ago, Escape School is part of a larger, umbrella enterprise known as Escape The City. It has an online community of 250,000 people worldwide who share tips, gripes and support, and it also connects bored office drones with interesting and exciting job opportunities via its website’s dedicated recruitment pages. Up to 200 hand-picked jobs are posted every week and are hungrily gobbled up by beady-eyed members.
‘The criteria for the jobs pages is basically anything that’s not a job for a law firm or consultancy and all the rest of it,’ says Rob Symington, one of Escape The City’s co-founders. ‘We focus on exciting and hard-to-find opportunities that are entrepreneurial, have a positive social impact or are for an exciting brand. An exotic location is a big thumbs up, too.’
Current listings include a Nepal-based Research Ambassador for the Street Child charity and a tour guide based in London.
Rob’s own escape came in his mid-20s, when he was employed as a management consultant in a ‘big, soulless building’ near London Bridge. ‘I met my now business partner there on a project,’ he says, ‘and we bonded over a shared feeling that there must be more to life than this.’
Six years later, the Escape The City Hall Of Fame now features dozens of people that Rob and his partners have helped to move away from more traditional careers and into more exciting new territory. Among them are Lauren Pinfold, a former teacher who went on to set up a business making flavoured butter; Adam Bromby who was a project manager in the construction industry and now runs a water-sports clothing brand; and investment banker Kerstin Heider, who went on to create her own drinks company.
Though Escape The City has a lively online community in the UAE, success stories here are notably thinner on the ground, largely because most people come to Dubai and Abu Dhabi with pretty clear corporate goals. But freelance photographer Abbi Kemp (abbikemp.com) is proof that entrepreneurism rules.
Abbi stepped away from the world of advertising in London to pursue her dream shortly after arriving here with her Lebanese husband. Now well established in Dubai and loving the freedom of being her own boss, Abbi thinks an Escape School could thrive here, especially if entrepreneurial types could be paired up with ‘some kind of government organisation that provides start-up funds’ and made the process of self-employment a little easier. ‘It’s a new market here,’ she says, ‘and there are so many opportunities.’
It’s a sentiment that is echoed by Andrew Savage, one of the original investors in Escape The City, who has been working in telecoms in Dubai for 10 years. A huge admirer of their ‘get me out of here!’ ethos, he is all for building entrepreneurs. ‘If potential entrepreneurs were given the key tools I think many would believe in their ability to succeed on their own. The Escape School is relevant wherever you are in the world,’ he says.
Interestingly, Rob says they are hoping to open new Escape Schools in five countries over the next few years, and the UAE is one of several places on their radar. If you’re starting to ponder life after the corporate world, your exit could be closer than you think.
But do you really need a paid hand-holder to help you quit your job and try something new? If the rewards are as life-changing as people make them out to be, what is it that’s holding people back?
Globally the main issue is fear. Escape School helps people deal with that.
‘We have two different groups,’ says Rob. ‘One is called the Escape Tribe, which is for people looking to transition to more meaningful work, and we have the Start Up Tribe, which is for people with an entrepreneurial streak. Each school lasts three months, meeting once a week as well as some weekends, and they each have 50 people.’
They’re called tribes, he says, because planning your exit from the city can be a scary and lonely business. ‘A huge part of these programmes is solidarity,’ he says.
Sessions include workshops, coaching and instruction, and at the end of the 12 weeks each participant stand up in front of their peers, describe what they’ve done and reveal where their escape plan is heading. ‘A recurrent theme is that people want to do something with meaning and impact,’ says Rob. ‘It’s not always on a “save the world” level, but so many people say, “What I currently do doesn’t matter to anyone” or, worse, “What I do has a negative impact”.’
Many students, he says, are drawn to the idea of working with tangible products, their careers thus far having been based around spreadsheets, emails and conference calls. The school helps those who want to launch their own product to find something viable.
‘You could make a mortgage-sized bet on the wrong thing and only realise your mistake after two years,’ says Rob. ‘People build things the wrong way, refusing to let anyone see it until the finished product is perfect. The correct way is to be scrappy, to spend no money and to validate your ideas before you spend all your time and capital on them. With Start Up Tribe we get people to launch within 90 days, even if the product’s not perfect.’
If you think you’ll never have the courage to step away from the career path that seems mapped out for you, Rob has some words that might help put things in perspective: ‘We ask people what’s the worst-case scenario of trying something new, and they say, “Being out of work and living in a box by the river”. We say, “OK, so then what would you do?”, and they say, “Well, I suppose I’d use my skills and experience to go and get a new job.”
Which makes you no worse off than when you started.
‘There’s something called analysis paralysis,’ says Rob, ‘where super-intelligent people find themselves always mapping out the risks. If you focus on the risks, things will never change. But quitting your job to do something new is going to be hard, and discomfort is going to be a part of the journey. If you accept that, and realise that everyone else you admire who is living life on their own terms also went through that, then you’re much less likely to run away from it when the going gets tough.’
Rob’s top three tips for escaping the city
1. Build up an escape fund
‘The money you save gives you options, the money you spend keeps you trapped,’ says Rob. ‘The more you can put into an escape fund – even if you don’t know what it’s for – will loosen that tight collar around your neck.’
2. Try something left-field
‘Rather than apply for a job that 100 other people are going to go for, try and find opportunities where you’re in a field of one – frankly for a job that doesn’t even exist. I’d rather be in a field of one having a conversation with someone who might give me a break than slinging my CV and cover letter into a pot and never hearing back.’ He cites the example of a friend of his who was one of the first employees of Spotify, having been introduced to someone at the company, selling herself and being a good fit with the brand. ‘They basically created a job for her,’ he says. ‘I like the hustle she did.’
3. Don’t do it alone
‘The idea of quitting and starting something new can feel like such a lonely journey, so find people as mad as you and hang out with them.’ He says that the expression ‘You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with’ is especially pertinent, and that if the people you’re spending time with are negative or a bit corporate, find someone else to team up with for your journey. www.escapethecity.org